There is no word for ‘empowerment’ in the Arabic language. There seems to be, sadly, little use for it in an embattled Arab World. In Syria specifically, where the civil war has been raging since March of 2011.
The war has left 13.5 million Syrians in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 11 million of those have lost their homes and are refugees in neighboring countries. The world says the timing is not right to talk about empowering Syrian women.
Two sisters from Damascus, Sidra and Sawsan Raslan, say: We disagree.
Sidra and Sawsan, twenty and twenty-two, left the Middle East for the first time in the summer of 2016. Not to flee, but to take part in the Caux Peace and Leadership Training Program at Initiatives of Change, Switzerland. There they met people who believed peace was possible and lived in a country that was not at war. They returned to Syria, committed to bringing that change and peace home.
But at home the girls’ vision did not fit; people could not see the green mountains, lakes, and castles they had seen in Switzerland. They could not imagine peace when they could not imagine the very next day. What was change anyway? How could they want it, fight for it, if they did not know what it looked like?
So Sidra and Sawsan decided to find out. They made a survey for young Syrian girls, in which they asked them:
What do you want?
Over 100 young Syrian girls in 20 countries responded. The result: the very first Syrian young women’s empowerment report: Voice and Choice. Here it is:
As it turns out, in addition to war, young women in Syria face many societal challenges: the Arab customs and traditions of a male-dominant society, early marriage, and the disrespect of women, including lack of self worth. And yet, 96% of respondents believe their lives can change. They want an education, careers, practical skills. They want to stop the fighting and rebuild their country. But the survey’s most ground-breaking finding is this response:
No one has ever asked us what we want.
The war rages on in Syria. The world waits for an end to start rebuilding. But Sidra and Sawsan are doing things differently. Change, they believe, starts now.
Now they are developing workshops for young women to acquire business skills. Now they are forming peace circles where stories can be shared and common visions of Syria can be built. Sidra also wants to create an online platform where Syrian women can offer tutoring lessons; by teaching Arabic they can earn a living. 80% of them are below the poverty line.
The challenge is daunting and there is only so much two young sisters can do alone. But they launched a call and women have answered, and now that they know what they want, for themselves and for their country, these brave and inspiring girls are on their way.
This post is part of a monthly series on Womanscape. For more stories of women changing the world, Their Way, please click here. I guarantee they will blow you away.
For ways to help Sidra and Sawsan on their way, contact them here.